At 3-8, the only thing really worth knowing about the Washington Redskins is how deep the turmoil goes and what changes need to be made ahead of the 2014 campaign.
The reality is that the final five games of this season will determine exactly where those changes will take place. That process begins this week when the team hosts NFC East rivals the New York Giants.
Big Blue has endured its own dismal season, entering this game at 4-7 and coming off a season-crushing home defeat to the Dallas Cowboys.
But for Washington to capitalize, head coach Mike Shanahan has to lift the mood of his team after three hellish weeks.
Can Mike Shanahan improve the mood with his job in jeopardy?
There is no escaping the fact that Shanahan may be on borrowed time in D.C., something he acknowledged this week, according to USA Today's Jim Corbett:
Shanahan sent a clear message to his 3-8 team, acknowledging his four-year, 24-35 program is on watch to determine its collective fate.
"Players are smart enough to understand if you are 3-8 then everybody is playing for their jobs," Shanahan said. "That's the nature of our business. I don't care if it's players, coaches, support staff. The nature of this game is to find a way to win.
"And if you don't win, everybody's accountable."
The man at the top certainly should be accountable, as Washington prepares for a third losing season out of four.
|Mike Shanahan's Record with Washington|
|2010||6-10||Last in NFC East|
|2011||5-11||Last in NFC East|
|2012||10-6||First in NFC East|
|2013||3-8||Currently last in NFC East|
It is tough for any coach to positively spin a record like that, although Shanahan has certainly tried. Rather than excuses though, a willingness to change is what Shanahan really needs to show, as The Washington Post's Rick Snider has noted:
That said, the NFL is always about being one year away from a turnaround. Half the playoff teams are new each year. Shanahan knows if Griffin spends the entire offseason learning to read defenses instead of lines for commercials, the offense will be fine, especially with some new linemen via $20 million in free agency spending.
One more chance might work, but only if drastic changes are made to restore fans’ faith.
That means releasing defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and special teams coach Keith Burns after miserable tenures. If Snyder demanded the changes, Shanahan would probably agree.
Few would complain if both Burns and Haslett were sent packing. Both have presided over dreadful units, even though the ultimate responsibility belongs with the head coach.
But that is an issue for the offseason, although it isn't going to go away before then. That means Shanahan will have to focus on raising the spirits of his team amid a justifiable barrage of negative coverage.
You can see when they’re not playing hard. I’ve been in situations before as an assistant or as a head coach where players just don’t play hard. You get the feel. . . . I haven’t seen any of that. And I don’t expect to see it with the type of players we have on our football team.
Shanahan's optimism is less than convincing after three weeks of his team falling flat in must-win games. It is particularly difficult to believe it when arguably the team's most important player is clearly not happy with life this season.
Fixing Robert Griffin III has to be the priority
If Shanahan wants to lift the mood of his team, he should start by restoring the confidence of his quarterback. Robert Griffin III has not had a tougher two weeks this season.
After being subjected to a fierce beating from the San Francisco 49ers, Griffin has had to hear current players state he shouldn't be on the field.
San Francisco rush linebacker Ahmad Brooks was the first, via CSN Washington's JP Finlay:
Asked about RG3 after the Niners 27-6 win over the Redskins, Brooks said plainly that Griffin is still fighting a knee injury and shouldn't be playing.
"He's obviously a man and he makes his own decisions, but I personally don’t feel he should be playing right now," Brooks said.
"I don’t think he should be playing. You can see it. Everybody can see it, everybody can see it."
During his interview, Canty took the Griffin debate a step further and called for Kirk Cousins to replace 2012's second overall pick for the remainder of the season:
It's clear that RGIII does not have the explosion that he had during his rookie campaign. ... I think they should sit him down.
It's clear that he's not able to run the offense at the high level that he did during his rookie year. I think Kirk Cousins gives them the best opportunity to win football games right now.
While these words may be said with the best of intentions regarding Griffin's health status, they will hardly be music to the quarterback's ears.
It is more attention on the player who has already endured speculation that his head coach wanted to draft somebody else, as well as questions about his character as a leader.
Shanahan is not prepared to turn to Cousins, and that may be smart considering the adverse effect it would have on Griffin's already fragile confidence.
The issue of Griffin's confidence intensified after a locker room visit from the player's father following the defeat to the 49ers. The visit has since been dismissed as mere concern about a possible injury, as The Post's Mike Jones pointed out:
Griffin Jr. has attended press conferences following games, but never had come in the locker room during the post-game media availability. The quarterback initially looked bewildered to see his father in the locker room. The two talked, then walked to the interview room for Griffin’s press conference, then returned to the locker room, sat down and talked some more.
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan shortly after his Tuesday press conference was asked about the elder Griffin’s visit. A short time later, the coach relayed through team spokesman Tony Wyllie that Griffin’s father came to the locker room to check on his son because “he thought he was injured.”
Questions about Griffin's temperament can only be quieted with a strong performance. The possible return of two key players could help with that.
The injury news is mixed for Washington. On defense, the news is significant and involves the season coming to a premature end for defensive end Stephen Bowen.
The experienced 3-4 lineman will miss the last five games with a cartilage injury, according to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir.
Although he hasn't been as effective as he was in 2011 and 2012, Bowen is one of the few natural two-gap linemen in the Redskins' 3-4 scheme.
His loss will be felt, and Kedric Golston and Chris Baker will have to work hard to compensate.
The picture is a little brighter on offense, where Griffin could welcome back one of his most important playmakers. Rookie tight end Jordan Reed missed the clash with the 49ers thanks to the concussion he suffered in Week 11.
The early signs are good for Reed's return against the Giants, along with fullback Darrel Young, who is a key part of the running game.
El-Bashir offered positive progress reports on both:
Shanahan also said tight end Jordan Reed (concussion) is feeling better and that fullback Darrel Young (hamstring) worked out on a treadmill Tuesday. Both players sat out Monday’s game.
Aside from wide receiver Pierre Garcon, Reed has been the only other pass-catcher Griffin has been able to rely on. He has tallied 28 receptions and two touchdowns since Week 6.
The passing game is simply more dynamic and versatile with Reed on the field.
The same is true for the running game whenever Young is its lead blocker. The underrated fullback was certainly missed against the 49ers.
Backup tight end Niles Paul couldn't win one-on-one blocks in the backfield and a stunted ground attack was the result.
If Young and Reed are raring to go in Week 13, it will be major double boost for this offense. With the running game back to its best and another credible weapon for Griffin to aim for, pressure will ease on the unit's weakest position.
What Must Improve
The offensive line will be under strict focus all game after a complete collapse against San Francisco. The front five allowed four sacks and repeated hits on Griffin.
Washington has now allowed 12 sacks in the last three games. That is a recipe for disaster for any quarterback, let alone one with the issues Griffin has.
Things may not get any easier against the Giants this week. New York no longer boasts the stellar pass rush that helped win the Super Bowls two seasons ago.
Jason Pierre-Paul continues to put more effort into his pregame trash talk than his on-field performances, while Justin Tuck has naturally been slowed by injuries and age.
But while the ends are not the force they once were, the tackles have emerged to become the danger men up front for Big Blue.
Veteran Cullen Jenkins and youngster Linval Joseph are a strong tandem inside. Rookie Johnathan Hankins and ex-Philadelphia Eagle Mike Patterson are also useful in the rotation.
New York's strength along the interior is bad news for the Washington O-line. The group has been getting beat inside all season.
Against the 49ers, they couldn't control nose tackle Glenn Dorsey in the running game. The week before they had similar struggles against Philly's young star Fletcher Cox.
If they shut down Washington duo Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr., the Redskins will be in trouble.
They will also be in trouble if Griffin is battered by the blitz the way he was against the 49ers and the Vikings two weeks before.
Every member of the Redskins blocking schemes needs to show improvement. That includes all five starting O-linemen and extra tight ends like Paul and Logan Paulsen.
If the blocking is sound, Griffin and the offense can put up points on this Giants team and start the process of salvaging some pride from a tough season.